The one that got away: JJ Lehto, 1999 Le Mans 24 hours
He’d won before. He was happy with team, car and co-drivers. He was leading. But it all changed instantly, he tells Adam Cooper
“In 1998, I did a season of CART, and for ’99 there was a chance that I’d stay in Arnerica — and do Le Mans for BMW. But it all turned around and I ended up doing a full season of sportscars with BMW.
“I knew the Schnitzer team very well They were always good fun, happy and polite. Gerhard Berger was in charge of BMW Motorsport, so he was involved a lot. He was good friends with Charly Lamm, the team boss, because he’d driven for him many years before. They went way back! There was a good feeling.
“I never drove the 1998 BMW, but everybody said the new V12 LMR was night-and-day different. It was a big jump forward; the first car was really just a learning tool. The only thing was that you had a big V12 in the back, and you could feel its weight. And the car was definitely designed for Le Mans; when we raced in America later, it was always lacking downforce.
“The car was designed by Williams. Patrick Head was in the background, too, but we didn’t have much to do with him. The guy in charge of the whole thing was John Russell, who was very easy to work with.
“Sebring was the first race with the new car, and it went well. It lasted 12 hours and we won. This was a good indication that we might have something going at Le Mans as well. However, the Toyota GT-One was a fantastic looking car, really fast and really well built; there was a lot of money behind that project and everything was perfect. Having said that, we were also well prepared and had done a lot of testing.
“Our driver line-up was very good as well. I was with Tom Kristensen and Jörg Müller. Tom and I had both won the race before, and all three of us had a lot of experience. It was good to get involved and work together with these guys, as we had a very similar way of thinking: there was no fighting and nobody tried to be a number one. Everybody wanted to win, but we were not really looking for pole position. Maybe we could have got it, but we didn’t run that many new tyres. We were happy with what we achieved in qualifying.
“The best thing was that the BMW was really good on fuel consumption. Toyota were always counting that we were going to do the same amount of laps as they could per stint, but right from the beginning of the race we were able to stretch it another lap. That was kind of shocking for them, a real advantage for us.
“We took it a little bit easy in the beginning, just trying to find our rhythm and seeing how the others were doing. The plan was to start to attack a little bit later on. It worked well, the car was running nicely and we were soon in the lead. All the drivers did a good job. All the stints were going really, really well. We didn’t have any problems.
“After we got through the night it was really under our control. I think we were four laps ahead of the others. Knowing that you have that advantage, and that there shouldn’t be any problems, you are just nursing the car. Of course, you have to keep a certain pace anyway, because otherwise you start to make mistakes if you drive too slowly.
“Then just before noon in the Porsche Curves, a damper broke, or cut in half. I lost the steering and then the rollbar pushed the accelerator open. No steering and full throttle! I couldn’t do anything. I was in fifth gear. I was a passenger.”
“I hit the wall so hard it was unbelievable. I bounced across the track and stopped on the other side. I was so surprised that something like that could happen. It was quite a shocking thing because I had been enjoying it so much. I hit my legs quite hard and my knees were hurting like hell, but I was okay.
“It was disappointing but sometimes you get these mechanical problems. What can you say? For sure, it would have been our race. But it wasn’t. Of course it pissed us off but, on the other hand, BMW still won. The other crew [Joachim Winkelhock/Yannick Dalmas/ Pierluigi Martini] were reliable and they did a perfect job. And at least we had showed what we could do: we were quick and we had a good time.”